The Challenge of Leading From The Top

The Challenge of Leading from the Top - Photo by Pascal Habermann on Unsplash

I work with a variety of senior leaders who often ask me to work with their team or the management layer below them. It is great they want to invest in the people below them but it is not uncommon to find it is the senior leaders who need the help. Don’t get me wrong, these leaders are highly capable. Nobody gets to their level without delivering results. The problem is they are doing a different job than the one they are familiar with. They don’t understand what is needed when you are leading from the top.

The challenge of Leading from the top

This is the leader’s challenge. Many senior leaders I work with are either too hands on or too hands off. The more inexperienced leaders tend to be more hands on. They are used to directing the work and feel they are adding value. I did this myself. I thought it was my role to impart my experience about how to get things done. The trouble is my way wasn’t often the best way. I would have been much more useful clarifying the desired outcome and coaching the team to find their way.

More experienced leaders recognize this pitfall so they go to the other extreme. They don’t want to get in the way so they make requests and leave the team alone. Their perspective is positive. “My team can figure it out, they are smart, and I’ve got more important things to do”. While that may be true, they aren’t setting their team up for success. They are doing their job.

The Senior Leaders Role

We’ve described the two ends of this scale, so what lies in the middle? This is the domain of the effective senior leader. They provide just the right amount of guidance. In particular they:

  • Set out a clear vision of the future and what success looks like
  • Make clear requests of their team
  • Coach the team to be successful, never taking over their responsibility
  • Outline how they expect the team to work together. For example, who has what leadership authority? How will decisions get made and how do they wish to be involved.
  • Ask for updates on progress against key outcomes, providing support and resources as needed
  • Recognize and reward good work. This includes both successes and failures.

I am curious, what is your experience in a senior leadership role or of senior leaders you have worked with? How hands on are they, do they have the balance right? Are they leading from the top?


Comments (4)

I think at that level it’s more to do with who they “be” rather than what they “do”

Hi Dave, please can you expand on what you mean by ‘be’ and ‘do’. IT will be valuable for everyone to understand. Thanks!

A massive subject and distinction in a few words:

If you “be” enthusiastic you will show up in the world differently than if you say “be” grumpy. And you will naturally “do” different things. For example – enthusiastic, you may offer help to someone struggling. Grumpy, you may turn away and think ‘they need to sort themselves out’.

Who you “be”overall informs what you “do” each moment, which ultimately informs your future.

How you show up in the world shapes the way people respond to you. Most people like spending time with enthusiastic people, enthusiasm is contagious. Whereas it’s difficult when a colleague is grumpy all the time, they take you down, if you let them.

I’ve simplified it using enthusiastic and grumpy; of course there are many other ways of ‘being’ and all at once – so who you ‘be’ inside shows up on the outside.

Leadership is more about how you ‘be’. Think about what sort of person you would follow.

Thank you Dave, this is a very helpful distinction!

Comments are closed.